By Steve Holland
ARBUTUS, Maryland (Reuters) - Call it the great "Etch A Sketch" controversy of 2012.
Fresh from a solid victory in Illinois, Mitt Romney's Republican presidential campaign got caught up in a flap on Wednesday over an aide's comments his opponents said made clear Romney is not a real conservative.
Senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom gave Romney rivals Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich grist for criticism in his reply to a question during a CNN interview on whether Romney has had to tack so far to the right it could hurt him in a general election match-up against Democratic President Barack Obama.
Fehrnstrom said Romney's situation is much like an Etch A Sketch, a popular children's toy used for drawing that can simply be shaken to erase the image scrolled onto it.
"Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again," Fehrnstrom said.
The controversy overshadowed to some extent Romney's growing confidence. After his Illinois win, it seems far harder for his rivals to catch him in the race for the right to face Obama in the November 6 election.
As soon as Fehrnstrom made the remark, Santorum's campaign immediately tried to use it as an example of how Romney is not really a conservative and is eager to return to his moderate roots as a former Massachusetts governor.
Romney's inability to convince all conservatives he is one of them has been an ongoing storyline through the presidential campaign and has permitted the rise of a number of conservative alternatives, most recently, Santorum.
A Santorum aide sent out a photo via Twitter showing Santorum with an Etch A Sketch and Gingrich carried one into an event as well. The Democratic National Committee gleefully leaped into the fracas as well.
Santorum spokeswoman Alice Stewart crashed Romney's event in Arbutus, a suburb of Baltimore, showing up in the parking lot and handing out a couple of the toys as the cameras rolled.
"It's just a way to demonstrate how unfortunate it is I guess for the Romney campaign that they acknowledged our worst fears. They acknowledged the fact that his credentials aren't from his core," Stewart said. "What it does is confirm what a lot of conservatives are afraid of."
After his event near Baltimore, Romney took one question from a reporter to try to put the controversy to rest. He insisted he is a true conservative.
Trying to clarify what Fehrnstrom was saying, Romney said once the campaign moves to a general election campaign, much will change in terms of staff, how the campaign is funded and which states he would visit.
"Organizationally a general election campaign takes on a different profile. The issues I'm running on will be exactly the same. I'm running as a conservative Republican.
"I was a conservative Republican governor. I will be running as a conservative Republican at that point, hopefully, nominee for president. The policies and positions are the same," he said.
(Reporting by Steve Holland; editing by Lisa Shumaker and Todd Eastham)